How to get honest interview answers from job candidates

How to get honest interview answers from job candidates
Written by: Karl Sakas

Interviewing people for a job is tough—you want the truth and many candidates will say anything to get hired. How do you avoid hiring someone who doesn’t want to do the job as you’ve defined it?

One of the biggest problems I see at digital agencies is when candidates say they want to do the job you need them to do… and then complain about not doing the job they want to do. This is especially true around how employees spend their day/week. [Last updated: April 2023]

Horror stories: The employee who can but won’t

For instance, a friend recently hired a new project manager. The hire’s background was in marketing strategy but she assured the agency that she wanted to do PM now. But as soon as she started, she started complaining that she didn’t get to do strategy work—which was a different role at the agency. The agency didn’t need or want their PMs doing client strategy.

A client recently fired his agency’s salesperson because he wasn’t doing prospecting. The salesperson complained that the agency wasn’t giving him leads… but the agency owner had told the salesperson his job included finding his own sales leads.

How do you avoid hiring someone who’ll promise anything and then fail at the job because they’re not excited about what you need them to do?

Asking job candidates the right questions to get honest interview answers

The key is to ask an open-ended question early in the process: “In your ideal week, how much time would you spend on X, Y, and Z?”

The exact question will depend on the role. Here are some examples. I recommend using these in the application form or the phone-screen.

  • Hiring a salesperson: “In an ideal week, what percentage of time do you spend on: prospecting vs. responding to inbound leads vs. upselling current clients?” Or perhaps: “In your ideal job, what percentage of your time do you spend as a Hunter, Farmer, Scout, or Shepherd?”
  • Hiring a PM or account manager: “In an ideal week, what percentage of time do you spend on: internal PM vs. client service vs. sales proposal support?”
  • Hiring a web developer: “In an ideal week, what percentage of time do you spend on: design vs. front-end development vs. back-end development?”

Assume they’ll ask a clarifying question or two… but don’t “lead” them on their answers.

For more example questions by job role, see my article on how to avoid hiring a “reluctant employee” at your agency.

Applying this at your agency

Pay attention to what they say they want, versus what you want them to do.

For instance, if I’m hiring a web developer to do heavy back-end work but a candidate says their ideal job is 50% design, 40% front-end, and 10% back-end, I can excuse them after the phone screen… or even in the application process.

Don’t know the percentage answer you want yourself? Stop interviewing people and figure that out first. For instance, you shouldn’t be meeting with salespeople until you know if you want a Hunter or a Farmer, and you shouldn’t be hiring a developer without knowing the particular skillset you need.

Question: What’s your agency’s must-ask interview question?

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

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